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Game 5: Daniel Sprong is Tempting Penguins Coaches

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Daniel Sprong: (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

UPDATE 3 p.m.:  See Matt Gajtka’s scoop. Sources with knowledge of the situation told PHN Phil Kessel is battling injury and Sprong is a real possibility.

 

Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Daniel Sprong is tempting Penguins coaches.

Before Game 4, sources inside the Penguins organization told Matt Gajtka of Pittsburgh Hockey Now that Sprong would take the warmups and was under consideration for a game-time sweater. The coaches opted for Dominik Simon, who played a stellar game while on Sidney Crosby’s line.

Sprong was chosen for warmups and consideration ahead of other forwards with NHL experience such as Josh Jooris.

Sprong skated with the big club again took the morning skate today, in anticipation of Game 5.

The Penguins are searching for offense in their Round 2 series against the Washington Capitals. Their top line centered by Crosby with Jake Guentzel has scored all of the Penguins 5v5 goals.

High scoring winger Phil Kessel is playing poorly. He has as many turnovers (5) in the series as he does shots on goal (5). The popular consensus is that Kessel aggravated a hand or wrist injury which he suffered in the regular season, but there has not been any word, internal or external.

However, when asked about Sprong Thursday morning, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan searched for an answer and turned immediately to Sprong’s shot.

“Daniel had a real good second half in Wilkes Barre. His shot is obviously one of his biggest assets. His scoring ability. He’s a dangerous scorer,” Sullivan said while searching for appropriate terms before revealing more about Sprong’s process. “We’ve talked a lot with Daniel about puck support. Supporting the puck. Coming closer to it. The spacing between him and his linemates. And how to support the puck in that aspect of his game.”

Sprong, 21, who tormented coaches with defensive confusion and indifference in his first full professional season was even a mid-season healthy scratch for the Penguins AHL affiliate. Yet the talented winger also scored at a point per game pace in the AHL. He scored 65 points (32g, 33a). To finish the accolades, Sprong played in the AHL All-Star game and was named to the AHL All-Rookie team.

Sprong was the Penguins second-round choice (#46 overall) and first selection in 2015. He stuck with the Penguins for the first few months of the 2015-16 season and played 18 games before being returned to his junior team. Sprong scored only two goals and no assists in those games.

Sprong rejoined the Penguins after the conclusion of his junior season but a severe shoulder injury while part of the 2016 Black Aces squad  (the Black Aces are the Penguins practice squad, comprised of minor league and extra players who scrimmage and practice separately of the team to stay ready in case needed during playoff runs). The injury required surgery and cost him most of last season.

This season has been, in part, a struggle for Sprong. The Penguins recalled Sprong in January, and he played eight games. However, after three scoreless games beside Crosby, Sprong scored three points in one game (2g, 1) against the Islanders. Sprong went scoreless in the next games and was returned to the AHL.

Analysis

Sullivan is a coach who has notecard answers at the ready for questions about any of his players. Reread Sullivan’s comments on Sprong. The repetition and searching for words was as uncharacteristic as it was revealing.

Essentially Sullivan said Sprong has a great shot and they have put a lot of effort into every other aspect of Sprong’s game, including the most basic hockey awareness: Support linemates and the puck.

While Sprong’s offensive potential tantalizes Penguins coaches, the risk would be huge. In a tight series, every mistake is magnified. Unless the Penguins are confident Sprong can play a competent NHL game, which he has yet to do, he will likely remain in a tempting option but nothing more.

Sprong would need to play a top-six role, which means heavy minutes. The Penguins needed to be nearly perfect in Game 4. One bad shift can undo that momentum and effort. It’s hard to imagine coaches taking such a big leap of faith unless they are forced to do so.

For fans who argue for his inclusion, if the argument begins, “He couldn’t be any worse than…,” it’s a losing argument. As poorly as Kessel has appeared, he is at worst a competent NHL player who knows and understands his responsibilities without sending his linemates into chaos.

Simon is similarly positioned as a player who can add some offense but without the great risks, which Sprong brings. Insensitivity to the complexities of the NHL game makes it easy to argue for Sprong, but the harsh realities counter the potential.

Those who covered WBS Penguins have reported improvement

At least for now, and at least in this series, Sprong is a long shot. However, with more practice, the issue may be revisited if the Penguins advance to face a smaller, speed based opponent. Ahem, Tampa Bay.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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